Tag Archives: death ritual

Gujarati/Jain Death Rituals Regarding Food

Context: The informant, A.V., is an 18 year old student with parents who immigrated from Gujarat; her family practices Jainism. Recently, her grandmother passed away, and this is what she observed immediately afterwards. Her grandmother, known as “Ba” lived with her family, and passed within the home.

Text: “When Ba passed away, a bunch of family friends came over almost immediately and when they asked my mom what they could do to help, she told them to start throwing out all the cooked food in both the refrigerator and freezer. I was really confused, so later I asked her, and she told me that if someone dies in the house, none of the cooked food is safe to eat anymore because like something about bad energy spoiling the food? Or like the aura of death in the house? I don’t remember. My cousin said it was probably because in olden times, they didn’t have much separation between the kitchen and where the death happened and also probably didn’t have good food storage, so whatever emanated from the body might end up getting in the food and making it unsafe.

The other thing was, until Ba was cremated, we weren’t allowed to make any food in the house. Family friends had to bring us food, like we couldn’t cook at all. My mom said it was partly because of the bad aura, because the house was like impure, but also partly because the spirit could linger and you want it to pass on. She said that like practically it was probably because people were supposed to have time to grieve without having to think about food, plus if people brought you food, you would have a strong community around you. Either way, it’s just kind of something you do. It doesn’t really matter if you believe in reincarnation or spirits or anything it’s just something you have to do.”

Analysis: Beyond any scientific reason that has to do with spoiled food and body-related fumes, the disposal of cooked food seems like an extension of contagious magic; as the body has died in the house, the food is no longer safe to eat because it contains that same aura of death. Rather than having an object that is once in contact always be in contact, with one having the ability to affect the other, it’s that two objects in contact with the same object (house) can affect each other. It’s almost a contagion syllogism if anything. One passing away makes the food no longer safe to eat. If anything, it’s contact magic in that the body touching the house affects the house’s purity and anything made within the house is unclean until the body is cremated, or purified.

Funeral Headbands


H is a pre-med Biology major at USC who grew up in Vancouver, Washington. His parents immigrated to the US from Vietnam.


H: “For funerals, you have to visit every day for the first week after the funeral and then once a week for seven weeks. And then, on the hundredth day since the funeral, everybody comes back to the temple. It’s like, the biggest day for them (the dead). You pray for them, wish them well at the temple. The hundredth day is when you have everybody together and you have a big feast. You have these white headbands that you wear and on the hundredth day, they chop off the headband.”


Since H was raised in a Viet-American household, he and his family’s celebration of weddings is similar to an Irish wake funeral, but also adds cultural specificity to Viet customs. For example, it is common in Irish funerals to throw a party on the deceased’s behalf, not only as a celebration of the deceased when they were alive but as a re-engineering of the domineering sorrow of a funeral. H’s feast on the hundredth day pays homage to the one who died without inviting negative emotions into the celebration of the individual.

Funerals are a liminal space, as Von Gennup puts it, lingering between the stages of life and death in a person’s existence on Earth. Rather than using funerals as a chance to mourn, H and Irish funeral traditions connect with members of their community and pray for safety into the next part of existing for the dead. This acceptance of death, the massive respect and commitment to the dead after the funeral, seems cultural, as does the white headbands and time. There is an acceptance of death as time marches on, not a denying of it. Rather, H’s family seems to come to terms that nothing can get in the way of death but glimmers for an appreciation of life and the one the once dead led.

Cahuilla Death Ritual: Burning the Passed’s Possessions

Main Piece:

I: When someone dies, it’s traditional to burn all of their things, like all of their personal possessions. We do that because… essentially you’re giving what they want to go with them into the next life, so you’re burning it so they can take it with them. Some people burn, some people don’t, and I think the general practice is you just try to burn like the most beloved items, that you’d be like, “They would definitely need this or would want this.” And I think part of it is like– because if you carry on their possessions for a certain long period of time, where you don’t move on or like get rid of it, it can be harmful for the living, as well. So it’s just kind of like a sense of acknowledging that they’re going somewhere else, moving on, but then you’re still here and you just have to wait it out. And you think that your family or your loved ones will burn your stuff when you go to the next world.


My informant is a good friend from high school. She is a part of the Cahuilla and Chippewa Indigenous Nations and explains this traditional practice of burning the passed’s possessions so they can take them along to the next world. When she first learned of this tradition, she thought it was sort of harsh to burn all of the things the living associated with the dead. She explains that there is usually a desire of the living to hold onto the dead’s most prized possessions, but the practice of burning is also a part of the mourning process. She says that the most traditional people will burn everything, but explains that there are also people who don’t perform this practice.


This is a transcript of a conversation between my friend and me over the phone. I have talked to her a few times about my folklore class and explained the collection to her. She was happy to help and talk about some of her traditions.


This traditional Cahuilla practice of burning the possessions of the passed is representative of how life is regarded as cyclical, rather than linear like in American culture. Because life is cyclical, it is thought that the dead will need their possessions for the next life or the next world. My friend expressed to me how she felt this practice was harsh at first, but then explains how she grew to understand that it is also part of the mourning process, and is beneficial for the living to let go of the dead’s possessions. Such a thought process can illustrate how American culture may focus on the needs of the living because if life is linear, there is nothing after death. However, her shift to understanding the benefits of this practice for both the living and the dead, along with the relief in knowing your loved ones will do the same for you when you pass, illustrates the view of life as cyclical; life continues and repeats. Furthermore, this practice could be thought of as both homeopathic and contagious magic. The act of burning possessions and its physical disintegration or disappearance mimics its transfer to the next life or the next world. While, because these items were in contact with the dead when they are burned, they will surely become in their possession again in the next life.

Hold your breath out of respect — Cemetery


The following piece was collected from a twenty woman from San Jose, CA. The woman will hereafter be referred to as the “Informant”, and I the “Collector”.

Informant: “I used to do something as a kid and..haha…I still do it now. Haha I don’t know, I guess it stuck around.”

Collector: “What do you do?”

Informant: “Well, whenever my family and I drove past a cemetery, everyone in the car would hold their breaths.”

Collector: “Because you didn’t want the bad spirits to enter you or something?”

Informant: “No, actually. We would do it because my dad told me once that it was disrespectful to breathe in front of all the people who couldn’t breathe anymore. So we held our breaths.”


            The Informant learned this from her father when she was a child, then she passed it on to her younger siblings. She remembers it clearly because she had actually heard about holding your breath when you pass a cemetery thing from her friend. She started doing it though because of the reason her dad told her they did it. It made more sense for her to hold her breath out of respect rather than out of fear. While she laughs about it being ridiculous now, she still does it if she remembers in time.


            Just like the Informant, I had also already heard of holding your breath when you pass a cemetery. And also like the informant, I thought the reason was to keep bad spirits from entering your body. I was surprised and also interested in hearing there was another reason why other people did it. The idea that people passing any cemetery feel the need to show respect to the graveyard is one that makes me both happy and sad. Happy because I’m glad to hear that people want to be respectful of the dead, but also sad because that respect shows itself in the sort of dark way of holding your breath in solidarity with the dead. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this tidbit of information.